While the Stanford defense was widely hailed for its standout performance last Saturday in Tucson, shutting down the Arizona Wildcats the latter half of the game while a sputtering Cardinal offense eked out a victory, this has not been a standout year for the "D." We believed coming into 2005 that the Stanford defense had enough starting talent to be as good as the 2004 version, especially in the front seven. The Arizona offense was summarily stuffed, and we should pay attention to that. But we cannot too quickly forget the difficulties that the Cardinal unit endured in their other four games this fall:
- Navy - A triple-option offense replacing loads of graduated starters, including a tremendous quarterback, throws for 248 yards and amasses a total of 458 yards.
- UC Davis - A transition Division I-AA team facing admittedly the steepest challenge in their program's history, throws for 251 yards.
- Oregon - Kellen Clemens may be the best quarterback in the Pac-10 this year, but he looked like a Heisman favorite while he played pitch-and-catch for 463 yards. That stat would have easily pushed north of 500 yards had the Ducks not run away with the game, deciding late to run the ball for fun and racking up an additional 132 yards.
- Washington State - Unheralded tailback Jerome Harrison runs wild, leading the Cougars to 246 yards rushing.
Those were four straight performances by opposing offenses that far exceeded statistical expectations against Stanford's defense. One or two of those games may have been an anomaly, but the collective trend was unmistakable.
Arizona does have the worst offense in the Pac-10, so Stanford's sterling work last Saturday does not yet inspire complete confidence that the "D" has turned the corner. The other four games' worth of data is hard to ignore. To put on an optimist's hat for a moment, however, there are some reasons to believe that Stanford's defense is improving:
- Trevor Hooper has returned at free safety, giving Stanford back their best coverage safety and an important leader in the secondary. He was injured early in the Navy game and is now working his way back into playing form and condition.
- Nick Sanchez was toasted like a holiday marshmallow early in the season but the last two games has been much improved. To be fair, he has not been tested with potent passing attacks in the two most recent contests, but his improvement of any magnitude would greatly steady the secondary.
- Though Michael Okwo was injured in the Oregon game and has not played since, Mike Silva has filled in wonderfully since. Silva is the most underrated player on Stanford's entire defense today, and his break-out gives the linebacking corps some playmaking depth as Okwo returns.
- Jon Alston was put on the cover of our October magazine for a reason, though he started the year working his way back from off-season surgery and a preseason hamstring injury. He and the coaches say that he is just starting to round into form, and that showed at Arizona with three sacks. His playmaking presence can significantly change a game.
- Despite two season-ending injuries to starting defensive ends, we might be seeing an emerging player in Chris Horn, if he can follow upon his Tucson performance of three tackles for loss.
While most fans have been talking about the offense all year, the failure of the defense was a more damaging fear prior to the Arizona game. If they should continue to give up huge yardage and scoring totals to opposing offenses, we can be sure that the slowly maturing Stanford offense will be unable to keep pace. The Wildcats' are woeful on offense, but Stanford last week showed the ability to drop the hammer defensively, which is something we did not see against Navy and Davis - also weak offenses. If the above improvements on defense are real, and Stanford can avoid hemorrhaging performances, then this team can do some damage still this season.
Why? I believe that the offense is improving. They showed things at Washington State to inspire confidence, which admittedly was eroded seven days later in Tucson. But we have improved blocking in the beleaguered offensive line now that redshirt freshman Allen Smith is starting at left tackle. And quarterback Trent Edwards is blossoming into one of the best signal callers West of the Mississippi.
What we have yet to see is the offense and defense put together their best games on the same Saturday. The special teams has performed well more often than not, but if they can be joined by both the "O" and the "D"... the underdog Cardinal could snare some upsets.
"We haven't played a complete game yet in all three phases," comments head coach Walt Harris. "I thought special teams did a real good competitive job last week, and I thought our defense after the first drive played well. Offensively, we weren't as good. Whereas the week before, our offense probably played their best game, and our defense was a little more porous. We missed a couple field goals that could have changed the game."
Arizona State has great speed and athleticism in their back seven on defense, which means that Stanford will have difficulty putting together big plays on offense today. The Sun Devils have closing speed to clamp down on ballcarriers quickly, while lockdown man coverage will make it difficult for Stanford's wide receivers to get open.
"They have the ability to play man-to-man against everybody they play," Harris explains of the ASU defense. "They get the proverbial eighth guy in the box, or one more guy than you can block to shut down your run game, because of their corners. They're also doing a lot of movement with their front guys because their linebackers are extremely fast and outstanding. They cover up any missed calls, or if they slant one way and the ball goes the other. They have the talent to make it a good call, even though they called it the wrong way... They have a tremendous amount of speed. They close on the ball extremely well - the secondary and linebackers, especially."
The Cardinal will in all likelihood have to hammer away with efficient though modest plays in both the running and receiving games. They may be facing a middling defensive line in ASU, which would be a welcome change, but middling might be enough to still give Stanford's offensive line as much as they can handle.
On that note, there is a heated battle at right tackle on the O-line currently. With Smith's surprising work at left tackle, redshirt junior Jeff Edwards has moved back to right tackle and competed all week with classmate Jon Cochran. Competition can spur an individual to improvement, so the hope is that whoever starts on the right side today will play better than we have seen the last two weeks. Smith has graded out higher than either Edwards or Cochran in each of the last two games.
"That's not the way it's supposed to be," says Harris of his upper class tackles.
Other items of note in and around the program this week:
- Fans have been asking the question daily, and we believe the answer is that Michael Okwo will return to the field today for the first time since October 1. That is reason for celebration, but Mike Silva has been lauded by teammates and coaches for the job he did starting the last two games. "Mike Silva has got talent. I think he has gotten a lot better since he has played," Harris comments. "When you have someone playing to the level that Michael Okwo was playing for us - I would see he was playing probably better than anybody on our defense - but when you lose that guy, that's a big drop-off. I think Mike through game experience has really come on and improved his linebacker play. When we get them all back healthy, I think that would be a pretty good three-man rotation."
- Redshirt sophomore tight end Michael Horgan made his first career start last week at Arizona, filling the void with of a banged up Matt Traverso. Horgan made a huge touchdown catch in Tucson, which brought a big smile to his teammates and head coach. "He made a big catch. As soon as he caught it, the guy hit him," Harris says. "The thing I like about Mike is that he doesn't talk much. He's quiet. He's a tremendous guitar player and music major. He's not just good; he's tremendous. But he's very, very quiet. He actually showed some emotion when he scored the touchdown. One of his teammates came up to him. You could see the grip he put around the guy's shoulders. He pulled him into him to give a hug, and that was probably the most expression that I've seen out of Mike Horgan. I could not be happier and more thrilled for him. Sometimes you just need something good to happen for your career to take off. We think he has good ability; he can run; and he has size. We're hoping this jump-starts his career. It was a big, big catch for us."
- Stanford feels that they have fixed and "upgraded" some of their field goal protection, by personnel and scheme. Fifth-year senior placekicker Michael Sgroi also has to keep his kicks up above the line of scrimmage, but the Cardinal are hopeful to limit the blocked kicks going forward.
- One explanation offered by Harris this week for why last week's offense was so poor: he "overloaded" the offense with the breadth and complexity of plays for that game. This week Harris and the offensive coaches winnowed down a more focused game plan, which is something they can stomach no longer facing a defense as multiple and diverse as what Arizona presented. Harris openly takes the blame. "It felt like we had too many things that we thought we could do... I thought we had a plan, but because of inexperience with this offense, we didn't adjust very well during the game," he allows. "We have simplified our game plan... We have spent more time on the areas that we feel we need to improve upon that game. We spent a lot time on it before, but we've spent even more time now... More than any other drill that we've done, we've done this - that we feel will help us - but done more." What precisely Stanford focused on this week offensively, Harris is not saying.
- The biggest story on Stanford's offense the past two weeks has been the rushing of Trent Edwards, leading the team both games in the category. It is hard to overstate how much sleep that added weapon takes away from opposing defensive coordinators, and how it changes their defensive scheme. The pass rush has to hold something back to take into account the threat of an Edwards scramble, which should take some heat off the offensive line. But Stanford is playing with fire when they send Edwards into the fray. While he stays healthy, his ramblin' scramblin' ways are a weapon, but the moment he does not get up from a hit, would you not give back all those rushing yards?
- While the Cardinal can smile at the running threat Edwards has given them of late, the real magic happens in the huddle. Walt Harris, who has coached offense in the NFL, praises his quarterback for a mastery of this complex offense. "He does a really good job of learning the game plan. I've been very impressed with his intellectual ability to absorb the game plan," the coach critiques. "Just calling the play in the huddle separates a lot of guys. A lot of guys can't call plays in the huddle because they can't memorize and understand all the formations, all the books, putting the ball on the hash, setting the receivers on a wide field - it gets real complicated. I think in a lot of ways, that's why a lot of guys don't make it in the NFL - because they have trouble calling the plays. An NFL offense is probably 40 or 50 percent more complicated than in colleges, and maybe higher. He does a good job calling the plays, getting the signals and understanding the game plan."
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